I saw Black Panther five times – and, I should have gone three more. Take one part James Bond, mix it with a heavy chaser of post-colonial history and economic critique, then top it with the familiar ingredients of a Marvel blockbuster: the result is this film, and it was my jam. Seemingly, it was everyone else’s, too.
Emeryville is a weird thatch of a town of about 15,000 souls, not officially a part of Oakand, California, but tacked onto the west city’s west side. It has one cinema, and on the night of the Black Panther movie launch the queues were around the block, even though they were showing the film at 15-minute intervals from 5-11pm. While lining up for popcorn, an excitable movie goer tapped me on the shoulder and bellowed, “I’m PUMPED… Are YOU?” I was.
I took my seat, and five minutes in a scene opened with the words, “Oakland, 1992”. A roar erupted around me: this was not just another movie, but a moment in history, and we were all there to witness it.
I’d had long fallen in love with Marvel: as a kid aged five, I used to look at comics, because at the age I couldn’t read. The Avengers were my favourite because I loved the good guys, led by Captain America, all coming together to beat up the baddies.
There was a run of comics around 1976 where the Black Panther joined the team, and although he was essentially an acrobat, he was different, not just a hot head like Hawkeye. He stood tall and represented me, and kids like me, in that team: it was the first time I had seen a black person as a good guy in comics. It was in his honour I drew my first superhero character: Captain Jamaica.
But some 50-odd years after his creation, are the Black Panther movie and director Ryan Coogler’s singular vision of it really worth all the nominations and awards they’re now getting?
The respect the film is receiving serves in part to assuage liberal guilt for the systematic blocking of black talent in movies: the repetition of the myth that heroes and leading actors can only ever look like some derivative of Brad Pitt. It’s also a recognition of the revolution that Marvel Studios has brought to Hollywood. Marvel has turned the clock back and forward at the same time, recreating the studio system while bringing people back to the cinema in droves. Money eventually talks.
And the success of Black Panther has left some liberal folk feeling guilty: they’ve sneered for years at “popular” movies, saying that they don’t take risks, accusing them of painting by numbers with weak and two-dimensional plots. Well – this film managed to satisfy kids, families and intellectuals, too. There was enough black power politics and well-written characters, mixed in with the good old fashioned super hero-ing, to keep everyone happy. That alone is a feat of epic proportions.
You may call these films formulaic, but Marvel has managed to do something that no other major Hollywood studio has ever even wanted to try before: to have a wholly black cast and creative team, and deliver a story that has been universally enjoyed and respected. The best fiction suspends disbelief, creates new worlds, submerging the reader or the viewer into a universe of new possibilities and even elements. In this reality, an isolationist African country, left unhindered by the white man, has become a technological giant. Although many of the people who saw Black Panther were white, they understood the message of movie well enough.
The nice folk on the awards committees know that the world has changed, and here is the formal recognition of that demographic fact. Superhero films are insanely popular across just about every section of the population, and increasingly awards ceremonies have been called out for being out of touch, as well as male and white-centric. These ceremonies have been edging towards irrelevance – and if seizing the opportunity to grant respect to an excellent film that embraces a different skin tone on our big screens gets them column inches and acknowledgement rather than pushback, they made a wise choice.
In my two hours in the cinema that day, I saw an epic tale of cousins battling over their visions of a nation’s place in the world. Should Wakanda take vengeance for slavery’s economic and human genocide? Or should it use black ingenuity to aid the poor?
Well, this is a Disney movie too – Marvel Studios is a subsidiary – so there was only going to be one answer to that question. But when the credits rolled, the cinema erupted into cheers and applause. The movie was bookended by scenes of the city where I saw it, and the director is a local boy done good. This wasn’t really Wakanda showing the world its strength: this was Oakland.
Roifield Brown is a writer and podcast producer, in which capacity he helped to launch Skylines, the CityMetric podcast. He tweets as @roifield.